The Authenticity of Grotesque Carving and Gargoyles

The College of St George, next to St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, has held an exhibition this Autumn entitled ‘Imaginative Sculpture – Protecting the Sacred Space’. Working in partnership with the City and Guilds of London Art School, this exhibition celebrates an ‘imaginative carving programme’, which has produced a series of new grotesque sculptures and gargoyles for St George’s Chapel.

Gargoyles combo

These grotesque figures replace the heavily eroded Victorian grotesques, which themselves replaced medieval carvings, the design of which is not known. In other words, these contemporary original gargoyles are to replace High Victorian neo-Gothic originals, which replaced the medieval original ‘originals’ in the later-nineteenth century. Where does this leave the issue of ‘authenticity’? And on what principles should ‘preservation’ of an ‘original’ operate?

Conservators of Cathedrals have long had to grapple with this problem. In the nineteenth century, the debate worked through the oppositional ideologies of ‘restorationists’ on the one hand and the followers of the ‘anti-scrape’ movement on the other. Represented by ‘Ecclesiologist’ groups such as the Cambridge Camden Society, and star architects such as Augustus Pugin and George Gilbert Scott, restorationists followed (neo-)‘gothic’ principles in their activities of seemingly making medieval buildings look more ‘medieval’. Opposing these very ‘hands-on’ practices, the ‘anti-scrape’ brigade was led by figures such as John Ruskin and William Morris, and operated through the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings. For this group, medieval fabric was definitely not to be tampered with or artificially ‘improved’, and any repair should be clearly transparent. But what counts as ‘authentic’ within these debates? One could argue that the restorationists had an ‘authentic’ Victorian imagination of the medieval world, while those who followed a seemingly more ‘pure’ line of not tampering with any inherited object must necessarily have to accept the ‘authentic’ decay and oblivion of their treasured artefacts. And if an authentic medieval statue is damaged, perhaps with iconoclastic zeal, then what should be conserved?: Should such a badly eroded statue be left to its own devices (eventually to dissolve into nothing)?, be replaced with a ‘new’ – but similarly damaged – replica (thus ‘preserving’ a semblance of the iconoclast’s authentic ire)?, or be replaced by a replica that tries to copy the medieval original (assuming that the design is known)?

Exeter Cathedral-statue

The partnership between St George’s Chapel and the City and Guilds of London Art School has steered a course through these debates by seeking to produce new grotesque figures that ‘aim to reproduce the scale and detail of the original medieval conception whilst allowing students the opportunity to be inventive in designing new carvings’ (quote from the website: The students were inspired by several visits to the chapel, studying in close-up several 15th century wooden carvings which helped to ‘fire their imagination’, while members of the Chapel team and their ‘Fabric Advisory Group’ made several visits to the Art School, thus opening up a dialogue that stayed ‘fresh and exciting’.

Medieval ‘purists’ might well be critical of the outcomes of the project – which include an Earth Mother figure, the Hindu elephant god, Ganesha, and a mouse with a human ear growing from its back – but I think that the outcome can be said to have an ‘authentic feel’ that is very refreshing; a present centred celebration and rendition of ‘the past’, carried out in a fashion that respects both the physical context of the site as well as the intangible heritage context of craft skill and what I can only call a ‘knowing attitude’ to the world. Drawing from the work of people like Rodney Harrison and Jenny Kidd, these practices seem to reflect a situation an on-going dialogue between past and present, and appear to have the ‘feel’ of authenticity, and can thus act as a reflective prompt rather than just paying a timid homage to an essentialised and stable ‘relic from the past’.


What we see in these commissioned grotesque statues is a spirit of authenticity; one that is true to the imaginative milieu of the world in which the building was originally conceived and built, and that honours the exceptional levels of skill and creativity of the craft practices involved. It reminds me of Sian Jones and Thomas Yarrow’s work with masons who were engaged in conserving Glasgow Cathedral (in the Journal of Material Culture, volume 18.3, 2013), in which they found ‘authenticity’ being produced through forms of expertise and skill that are aligned through daily practices of conservation work: “authenticity is neither a subjective, discursive construction, nor a latent property of historic monuments waiting to be preserved. Rather it is a property that emerges through specific interactions between people and things” (page 3).